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Stavros DIMAS

Member of the European Commission, responsible for environment

The Shift to Sustainable Consumption and Production

Sustainable Consumption and Production
Brussels, EEB Conference, 26 September 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for this invitation to speak and also for choosing such an important and topical subject for this year's conference. As environmental policy focuses on the immediate challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss is becoming increasingly clear that one of the underlying causes of these problems are consumption patterns that are well beyond the carrying capacity of the planet.

The way that we produce and consume has led to a situation where only a radical reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases has a chance of preventing dangerous levels of global warming.

Nature is being destroyed to fuel our demand for land and resources. Since 1970 some 25% of biodiversity on the planet had been lost - in other words human activity is eliminating about 1% of all other species each and every year. We are spending the natural capital of the planet like a teenager with a pocket full of credit cards. And as a result over 60% of our natural ecosystem services are now seriously degraded or over-exploited.

The pace of global economic expansion is also putting huge pressure on our natural resources. The growing scarcity of natural resources has resulted in sharp prices increases for a range of commodities as well as for the most basic foodstuffs.

The current situation is already unsustainable and in Europe we are consuming as if we had two and a half Earths at our disposal. The world's population is set to double by 2050 and the growing populations in countries such as China and India aspire to copy our western, consumerist lifestyles. To meet these demands natural resource extraction is predicted to increase five-fold in the next 40 years and looking to the future it is clear that the problems that we are facing today are set to get much worse.

More consumption will mean ever scarcer natural resources, more waste, higher greenhouse gas emissions and further environmental degradation. The way that we use resources, and the speed with which they are being exploited, are rapidly eroding the planet’s capacity to regenerate. If we are serious about a development that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable then it these trends cannot continue. We must learn to live with the finite resources of only one Earth.

There is a growing awareness of these problems and an increasing demand for action. But there is also strong opposition to any message that we need to compromise our quality of life and "tighten our belts" for the sake of the planet. This is especially true at a time of economic crisis. And it is especially true for developing countries which quite legitimately are looking to build a better life for their citizens.

We cannot realistically solve these problems by asking people to do less. We need to do more, but in different ways. This means developing a policy framework for smarter consumption and leaner production. Europe needs to become an economy which creates value and thrives through the effective and efficient use of natural resources. And by doing this we can act as an example for the rest of the world – in the same way that we have with climate change where we proved that cutting emissions does not mean giving up on economic growth.

Doing "more with less" will be good for the environment but will also bring benefits for business. Clean production is lean production and at a time of high energy and resource prices this is the best way to keep a competitive edge. Green technologies will enable Europe to seize business opportunities and respond to growing worldwide competition. This is the thinking behind the new Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan.

Trying to change in the way that individuals think and behave is a politically sensitive issue and where possible we need to convince rather than impose choices on consumers. But the lesson of history is that fundamental changes of attitude are quite possible. Two hundred years ago child labour was common practice. One hundred years ago the possibility of women having the vote was seen as utopian. Even ten years ago the idea that smoking would be banned in bars and restaurants would have been laughed at.

Big changes in the ways in which we perceive the world and how we act are a part of progress and the lesson from successful campaigns like the efforts to cut smoking have shown that the most effective approach is to combine a range of policy measures. We must provide information, educate, work with supply chains, introduce taxes, and be prepared to regulate where other instruments do not succeed.

The need to address consumption issues is not new. Already in 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development concluded that “Fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development.” Unfortunately progress since 2002 has been limited. There have been positive developments such as the launch of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management. But overall, the rhetoric on sustainable consumption has not been matched by policy commitments.

It is against this context that the SCP Action Plan should be viewed: a first step to go beyond words and to design a framework that can actually lead to a change in behaviour.

At the heart of our approach is the revision of the eco-design directive which provides a framework for design requirements using a life-cycle approach. The scope of the directive will be broadened, covering not only "energy-using" products, as is presently the case, but also all "energy-related" products. These are products that have an impact on energy consumption during use, such as window frames and water-using devices. In the future we will look to further extend the product coverage to include all products with a significant environmental impact.

We will use this framework to set mandatory minimum standards and products that do not meet these requirements will not be allowed on the European Market. What is more, these standards will be "dynamic". In other words they will be reviewed, and raised, over time to take into account technological progress. We already have standards for food safety, car safety and toy safety, and introducing standards for environmental safety is only common sense.

The Commission's proposal will also bring in benchmarks for good environmental performance based on the leading products available on the market. They will also be regularly updated and we will look to provide ways to incentivise the best performers through procurement practices and through the fiscal incentives that member states offer. Encouraging the good while excluding the bad will have obvious environmental benefits but will also spur innovation, and will provide businesses with a stable long-term perspective.

Improving consumer information is another key element of the Action Plan. The revisions to the eco-design directive will be combined with revisions to the energy labelling directives and the eco-label. The "A", "B", "C" labelling familiar from household appliances such as fridges and dishwashers will now be extended to other products and based on performance levels set by the eco-design directive.

To complement this approach the revised eco-label will be administratively streamlined and act as a "label of excellence" identifying products that perform well over a range of environmental criteria. The changes to the ecolabel scheme should lead to a considerable increase in the number of companies using the label, and this in turn will mean an increased number of ecolabelled products on the market. The more people see the label, the more they are likely to change their behaviour. It will help us break old habits.

Public procurement – the goods and services bought by public bodies in the EU – accounts for some 16% of EU GDP. The Action Plan proposes a target of 50% of all purchasing by public bodies to be carried out using green criteria. And to encourage environmentally responsible purchasing the Commission is developing a number of specific product requirements.

Measures to influence demand are also crucial, and retailers can play a significant role here. This is why we are cooperating with the largest retailers in Europe in the establishment of a Retail Forum. It is our intention is that the Forum will facilitate the sharing of knowledge and good practice, identify opportunities for new actions and, crucially, include an external monitoring of progress. This will help ensure that the many existing initiative taken by retailers have the maximum environmental effect and go beyond window dressing.

We will also work to develop education and information tools and to protect consumers from false environmental claims. If they are going to buy greener products it is essential that they are confident that environmental advertisements are justified and not just green-washing.

All these approaches will be complemented by tools to monitor, benchmark and promote resource efficiency across the economy.

I have talked a lot about roles of retailers, consumers and producers. This is inevitable given the subjects that we are looking at. But I would like to add that if we are going to move towards a sustainable future the Commission can do very little without civil society on its side.

Organisations like the European Environmental Bureau play a vital role in helping us to go forward with these plans. You are a source of new ideas, of constructive criticism and by mobilising public opinion you can help us turn proposals into reality. But NGOs also need to understand that they share a sense of responsibility for the success or failure of different initiatives.

When the Commission's proposals were published there were questions from NGOs about the level of ambition. However, as a politician I need to work in the real world and make proposals that have a chance of being agreed by the Member States. From the discussions that have been going on in Council it is clear that the Commission's proposals are considered as going too far by a number of key Member States. This is particularly the case with mandatory procurement and the use of fiscal incentives.

I would therefore urge the EEB and other environmental NGOs to mobilise their resources and to convince the sceptics that without firm policy instruments to back up our strategies sustainable consumption will remain a distant objective.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I said earlier that we have to learn to live with "only one Earth". Business as usual – and consumption as usual – is not an option and this means moving towards a more energy and resource efficient economy.

The Action Plan is an important first step in a new direction. It will enable us to measure the environmental performance of products equally across the EU. It will take the most damaging products off the market and will help us boost demand for products that perform well. It will engage the leading retailers in Europe and it will promote the eco-efficiency of our economy.

We are only at the beginning of move towards sustainable consumption and production and the measures in the Action Plan need to be adopted, implemented and then built upon. I count on the full and active support of the NGO community in this process.

But fundamental changes begin with first steps and in 10 years time I am convinced that environmental product standards will be taken for granted by European consumers. What is more, with a single market of half a billion people, where Europe leads the rest of the world very often follows.

With your knowledge and commitment I am firmly convinced that our shared objective of eco-efficiency will become reality and that by working together we will be able to "turn the tide" of today's unsustainable consumption.

Thank you.

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